Jellyfish or Fossil? On Louis Agassiz

Jellyfish or Fossil? On Louis Agassiz

Frustrated, stubborn, committed to bad science, was Louis Agassiz anything other than a laughingstock?


During the 1906 earthquake in California, a statue of the scientist Louis Agassiz fell from its perch, plunging the marble head of the Swiss-born naturalist straight into the ground and leaving his feet sticking up in the air. That seems to be where Agassiz still rests: head in the sand, feet in the air, something of a laughingstock. And as Christoph Irmscher points out in his new biography, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, most people today don’t know who Agassiz is—or if they do, they “tend to think of [him] as a misguided, opportunistic bigot.” Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University, is the author of an excellent study of American science writing, The Poetics of Natural History: From John Bartram to William James. That book includes a fine chapter on Agassiz, which the author has now expanded into a readable, well-informed and occasionally irritating biography.

Irmscher emphasizes early on that he’s not about to tidy up Agassiz’s image, although the celebrated scientist once wowed antebellum audiences in the United States, taught brilliant young scientists at Harvard, established the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and became the “Johnny Appleseed of science” (or so the cultural critic Van Wyck Brooks once called him). Wielding his considerable influence, Agassiz also tried to prevent Darwin’s theories from being accepted in the United States and was a “craven racist” (Irmscher’s words) who emphatically pronounced black men and women, as well as Native Americans and Asians, decidedly inferior to Caucasians.

All this leaves Irmscher with what he calls “a challenging [tale] to tell.” Of course, such challenges are the bane or the blessing (largely both) of anyone who writes about a pockmarked character (most are), or about a subject whose life and work don’t fit in with the current moral zeitgeist. And Agassiz is certainly out of step: fifty years ago, his biographer Edward Lurie called his racial views “tragic,” while the eminent biologist Stephen Jay Gould—the first to publish Agassiz’s unexpurgated letters about racial difference—points out that Agassiz was so much on the wrong side of the debates about Darwin and race that when he died, at age 66, he was almost totally isolated from the scientific community. Frustrated, stubborn and committed to bad science, the great naturalist, in Gould’s view, was a bit of a fallen angel. His story is one of the intrepid pursuit of a perverse idea: that the world was created in one way, and one way only, by a designing God who left nothing to chance. Agassiz resolved to prove that conclusion no matter what.

Though he largely agrees with Gould, Irmscher tacks in a slightly different direction. He claims that Agassiz was a man of contradictions, one who wanted to be rigorous but also wanted (needed?) to be popular; who established science as a “collective enterprise” but imperiously demanded credit for the research conducted under his auspices; who disliked slavery but also blacks (though in his day this wasn’t much of a contradiction); and who never stopped talking even as his reputation sank deeper into an embarrassed silence.

* * *

Born in 1807 in Môtier, Switzerland, the son of a Protestant minister who wanted him to study medicine, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz left the University of Zurich at age 21 for Heidelberg University and then the University of Munich, where he also studied natural history. Soon he dropped medicine altogether; Agassiz’s prodigious talents—he’d already earned two doctorates—and his gift for finding powerful mentors lay elsewhere. As the student of Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, he helped compile a volume about Amazonian fish from Martius’s collection, which resulted in his first publication, and in 1831, Agassiz was in Paris studying with the brilliant Georges Cuvier, professor of comparative anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes. The conservative Cuvier happened to be an opponent of the zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that organisms change because of pressures from within and without; Agassiz inclined toward Cuvier’s more fixed sense of a geology on which the history of the earth had been written.

Agassiz also attached himself to the great and generous scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1832 helped to procure a professorship for him at the Collège de Neuchâtel in Switzerland. During the next ten years, Agassiz married the painter Cecilie Braun (“virtually erased from history,” Irmscher claims), with whom he had three children. He taught, traveled and studied fossil fish collections throughout Europe, which resulted in a colossal analysis of 1,700 ancient fish. And he studied the moraines and glaciers of the Alps to formulate his famous theory of the ice age (first posited by others, Irmscher reminds us). Agassiz argued that catastrophic events like the ice age rendered any genetic relationship of animals and plants from one geological period to another unthinkable; species do not change. Rather, the deity directly intervened in the creation of the world, which did not develop over time. “While the awful might of the glacier threatens to nix all human attempts to understand it,” Irmscher writes, “the tracks that the moving ice sheets leave [in rock] do ultimately confirm that they can be understood, measured, triangulated, mapped.” To Irmscher, a literary critic, his subject too is an interpreter of texts: “As Agassiz sees it, the glacier is itself an enormous writing instrument. A world that to others seems stationary, cold, and lifeless is, to the scientist who knows how to read it, full of life, motion, change.”

Disseminating his ideas in what Irmscher calls a “publicity blitz,” Agassiz was soon an international superstar. But he was broke. Surrounded by admirers and camp followers, he ignored his wife, who walked out on him (and took their children) in 1845. Still, fortune was kind: through Humboldt, the king of Prussia sent Agassiz to America to study its flora and fauna, and geologist Charles Lyell helped get him invited to deliver the prestigious Lowell Institute Lectures in Boston (funded by the New England textile manufacturer John Amory Lowell).

The man who had climbed the Swiss Alps, the glaciologist who had explained the ice age and the ichthyologist devoted to jellyfish “took to America,” Irmscher writes, “like a fish to water.” And America took to him. With plenty of sparkle, Agassiz thrilled the audiences that packed the lecture halls with the wonders of science. He was such a success that, according to cultural critic Louis Menand, Harvard created the Lawrence Scientific School just for him. His wife having died of tuberculosis in 1848—Agassiz had already accepted his professorship by then—he settled comfortably in Cambridge, remarried the much-younger Elizabeth Cabot Cary (one of her suitors was apparently the antislavery senator Charles Sumner, and her brother-in-law was later president of Harvard), and sent for his children to join him there.

Equally at home with the chilly Boston Brahmins, the Cambridge professoriate and what one of that set called “the rabble,” Agassiz was soon known for his unusual pedagogical style: placing a grasshopper or turtle shell into a student’s hands—even the hands of those young ladies he was soon teaching at home along with his second wife—he implored his students to observe very carefully what they held. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said we should “study nature,” Agassiz believed that natural facts contain spiritual facts and that, as Emerson would have it, nature is a symbol of spirit—or God. According to Agassiz, facts lead us to the knowledge of God’s plan, which he thought could be uncovered by the careful study of individual specimens in order to ascertain how each creature fits into an intelligent design.

But “like a bad odor,” Irmscher writes, “Agassiz’s views about race have attached themselves to his damaged reputation.” Seemingly, Irmscher is here suggesting that Agassiz’s theories about Caucasian superiority stink—and while they do, Irmscher’s sometimes unnecessary decrees and the forced jocularity of his prose (Agassiz’s “scientific buddies” are “alpha males,” his first wife seemed “high-maintenance,” and only the “scandal-ridden Lawrence Summers” had a shorter tenure as Harvard’s president than Thomas Hill) unfortunately keep his subject at arm’s length. Instead, Irmscher draws attention to his own literary pedigree (he often quotes from Melville, occasionally from Emily Dickinson, and mentions that Gertrude Stein went to what became Radcliffe, whose first president was Elizabeth Agassiz). Yet Irmscher is also capable of writing engagingly, as in this description of Charles Darwin’s reaction to the upstart Swiss naturalist: “Agassiz was like one of his jellyfish: weird, infinitely interesting, capable of inflicting a certain amount of harm, but ultimately destined to fade into insubstantiality.”

This is from Irmscher’s superb and self-contained chapter “Darwin’s Barnacles, Agassiz’s Jellyfish,” which compares the two men, their science and their relationship—one that suggests that, overall, Irmscher’s biography is best conceived as a series of related but uneven essays about Agassiz. Moreover, it’s as a literary critic interpreting science writing that Irmscher is most delightful. For instance, this chapter includes his fanciful interpretation of the role of illustration in science, particularly as practiced by Agassiz’s lithographer Antoine Sonrel, who, according to Irmscher, creates a world “infinitely more complex than can be captured in language.” To Irmscher, the voluble and prolific Agassiz devoted himself to “nonverbal, visual ways of understanding and representing nature,” partly because, Irmscher argues, “words fail us when we try to describe” the jellyfish known as the medusa. “All the questions we ask of nature have to be formulated in language, as do the answers we find. But language inevitably returns us to a world shaped by our own notions and expectations, and that is, Agassiz realizes, not the world of the medusa. Evidently, even the term medusa itself isn’t appropriate. And if the jellyfish is not really a medusa, it is certainly not a fish either. Nor is it really made of jelly. Agassiz’s prose brilliantly confronts this problem, dancing around its own insufficiency.”

Here, Irmscher’s prose nicely highlights Agassiz’s, for it was Agassiz who proposed the conundrum about the medusa in the first place: “Is that which is called mouth, in Jellyfishes, truly a mouth?” he asked. “Is the so-called stomach truly a stomach? are the so-called ovaries really ovaries? are their tentacles in any way comparable to those of Mollusks and Worms?” Agassiz answers that “the most active imagination is truly at a loss to discover, in such a creature, any thing that recalls the animals with which we ourselves are most closely allied. There is no head, no body, there are no limbs.”

* * *

More tangentially, Irmscher also analyzes one of Sonrel’s photographs of Agassiz, in which the photographer presents two views of his subject in one frame. Claiming that the photograph suggests Agassiz is as unfathomable as one of his jellyfish, Irmscher implicitly makes his subject’s unknowability the center of the book, which allows him to fill in blank spaces with seeming digressions. Narrating at considerable length the career of Henry James Clark, one of Agassiz’s students, Irmscher explains that “to understand Agassiz, we need to understand the people who worked for him”—in particular Clark, who represents the failure, says Irmscher, “to carry on his legacy.” For although Agassiz had arranged an unpaid adjunct professorship for Clark at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, Clark felt exploited and, parting company with his mentor, believed the high-handed Agassiz should have recognized him as co-author of his Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America. Lambasting his teacher, Clark raised the specter of plagiarism (not the first time that Agassiz had been so accused). Agassiz, in turn, denied Clark access to the specimens Agassiz had collected. The resulting controversy involved the college president, the faculty and then the public, when Clark published his grievances in a pamphlet and raised the larger issues of collaboration and of intellectual property: who owns the rights to the findings of research undertaken with university (or corporate) funding or materials.

Clark’s story, though, isn’t the whole story. Agassiz’s far more successful students include Alpheus Hyatt, professor of paleontology at MIT; David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University; Joseph Le Conte, a professor at Berkeley; Edward S. Morse, a curator at the Peabody Museum; Albert Bickmore, one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History; Harvard paleontologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler; and Agassiz’s son Alexander, a scientist in his own right, about whom we learn little though he carried on the Agassiz name and museum. “There is hardly one now of the American naturalists of my generation,” said William James, “whom Agassiz did not train.”

In fact, his charismatic lecturing style, his command of the material, and his unswerving commitment to disseminating science democratically to all of the people all of the time had turned the Swiss scientist into something of a folk hero. And with his popularity at its peak, Agassiz decided that his scientific and pedagogic mission would be best served by a museum to educate and inspire the public, teach students, and serve as a major research center that could house the specimens he’d already begun amassing from all over the world. Room by room, he hoped to display the specimens for what they were and show how they all fit into God’s unfolding plan. He managed to raise funds from the Massachusetts legislature. Irmscher is dubious, however, about Agassiz’s “no-holds-barred collecting,” which resulted in a huge mishmash of barrels, boxes and bones where “the parts had crowded out the whole.” Regardless, Agassiz’s museum opened late in 1859, the same year as Darwin published The Origin of Species.

It wasn’t just Agassiz’s tenacious creationism that would knock up against Darwin as well as men closer to hand, like Harvard botanist Asa Gray. (As Irmscher points out, Agassiz’s opposition to the theory of evolution galvanized scientists like Gray, one of Darwin’s American supporters.) Agassiz was on his way to becoming a fossil himself, not only because of his rabid anti-Darwinism but, eventually, because of his racism.

According to Stephen Jay Gould, Agassiz’s racism can be traced to an experience in 1846. Shortly after he arrived in America, Agassiz encountered black servants in a Philadelphia hotel and, as he wrote to his mother, was completely unnerved by them. These waiters couldn’t really be men. “I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere,” he cried. “What unhappiness for the white race,” he concluded, “to have tied their existence so closely with that of negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact.” Convinced of the rightness of his views, Agassiz insisted in print that the descendants of Adam and Eve were decidedly Caucasian; that black men and women came from some other geographical region as a separate, distinct and inferior race, which should not be treated equally; and that, by all means, the races should never mingle or marry.

Agassiz claimed, however, that he was not proslavery (although his friends in Charleston definitely were) and that his position on the inferiority of blacks was not political. The contention was disingenuous at best: when asked for his advice by former abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe, a member of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, Agassiz warned Howe against granting full social rights to blacks. It would not be just or safe, he said.

Although Irmscher deplores Agassiz’s racism, he places it in the exculpatory context of antebellum America by citing Abraham Lincoln’s well-known statement in the debates with Stephen Douglas, in which he accused his race-baiting opponent of implying that “because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.” Irmscher’s logic here is, I think, at the very least questionable: because Lincoln’s publicly stated views seem close to those of Agassiz—as Irmscher puts it, “grant the ‘negro’ his humanity, but don’t let him come too close”—are we to conclude that Agassiz can’t be all that bad? And the comparison ignores the fact that as the presidential candidate of a party formed to prevent slavery’s extension into the territories, and as a politician fully aware of the views of the voters he courted, Lincoln needed to separate out the social issue of race from the political issue of slavery in order to get elected. Agassiz, on the other hand, wasn’t running for office; he was aiding and abetting proslavery zealots by propagating prejudice in the name of nonpartisan science.

To an extent, then, it is hard to save Agassiz from himself—which, despite his considerable talent, even Agassiz couldn’t do in his own day. Irmscher thus concludes his book by celebrating Elizabeth Agassiz as her husband’s co-author and an important contributor, in her own right, to the genre of popular science writing. But in his epilogue, Irmscher is again condemnatory—not of Agassiz this time, but of the “overspecialized scientists” and the “bovine masses of passive consumers clutching their remotes” who have missed the lasting and finally quite laudable point of a flawed man’s mission: Agassiz’s consistent and untiring effort to make science, and the love of science, and the understanding of science, and the respect for science, an essential part of American life.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel has objections to the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg examined Nagel's latest book in October 2012.

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